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Proof: Kids Prefer Foods Packaged with Cartoon Characters

The Pediatric Insider

© 2010 Roy Benaroch, MD

At the Pediatric Insider, I try to illustrate how people think: how doctors think about health and illness, and how parents think about raising their kids. Sometimes, our own experiences and preconceptions can fool us. That’s why adults seem to think expensive placebos are more effective, and why some well-meaning parents refuse vaccines despite overwhelming evidence of their safety and effectiveness. The internet has, of course, amplified the effects of misinformation and innuendo. It has also created a way for real-but-crazy stories to seem more close-to-home. We’re being bombarded by messages that subvert and influence our thinking in very creepy ways.

Fortunately, our children are immune to this kind of hanky-panky. Right?

In a July 2010 study titled “Influence of Licensed Characters on Children’s Taste and Snack Preferences,” researchers created a simple protocol to see if a smiling, familiar cartoon face changed the perceived tastiness of three common foods. They prepared pairs of bags of graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and baby-cut carrots, each labeled in clear packaging. The only difference was that one of each pair included a sticker with a cartoon character (Shrek, Dora, or Scooby Doo.) Each of the 40 children in the study were presented with a pair and asked to take a single bite of each food. Afterwards, they were asked if the two tasted the same, and if not, which one tasted better. Keep in mind that the pairs of food were exactly the same in every way, including the packaging and presentation—except for the cartoon sticker on one of the two bags.

You can guess what happened.

About a third of the kids correctly answered that the foods tasted the same (or said “I don’t know.”) Of the children who perceived a difference, 70-90% preferred the foods with the licensed characters.

This should surprise no one. Look around the grocery store, especially at breakfast cereals and “snack foods” and other items sold at a child’s eye level. They’re festooned with popular characters exhorting children to buy, buy, buy and eat, eat, eat!

Of course, there’s a silver lining here. Maybe parents ought to buy a strip of Dora stickers to slap on the carrots when Junior’s not looking. When the going gets tough, the tough get sneaky!


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